(Information gleaned and collated from over 20 sources)
This section includes with …
- How many reps
- How often
For the scientifically minded
We are talking here about resistance exercises using your own body weight or other weights, such as dumbbells or gym equipment, and not other strength training such as hill work. Many runners neglect such training, preferring to put in the miles on the road. However, strength training can prove very beneficial to you and should be an important part of your training programme. There are literally dozens of exercises aimed at improving the strength of your muscles and it can be very confusing to know which ones are most appropriate. It is best to think of them in terms of the muscle groups that they target and it helps to think of your body in sections such as …
Arms and shoulders (and to a lesser degree, the head); core; upper legs; lower legs; feet and ankles.
However, there is some overlap in many exercises and you may see them divided into slightly different categories. It matters not, as long as you know which muscles each exercise is aimed at then you can avoid duplicating them in any one session.
You will find dozens of exercises on the internet and many of you will have done several with fitness instructors, but if you are looking for a book, I would recommend “Anatomy of Running” – Philip Striano, or “Strength Training for Runners” – John Shepherd.
Club members working out at Bates Body Factory
- To strengthen muscles and connective tissues
(Increasing leg strength results in greater power at toe-off and hence increases stride length and consequently, speed.)
- Increase muscle stiffness, hence giving more “energy return” with each stride (compare your muscles to a strong spring).
- Corrects muscle imbalance
- Increases resistance to fatigue
- Reduces the risk of injury
- Improves running economy
- Helps maintain good form and hence energy efficiency
- Adds variety to your training
Each movement should be fluid and controlled – if lowering a weight or your body, do it smoothly and don’t just drop it, try to resist gravity. Follow the instructions carefully, using proper technique.
Warning! – It is important to perform each exercise correctly, otherwise you won’t be focusing on the intended muscle groups and may even strengthen them unequally. Done properly, strength training stresses the muscles, causing micro-damage and hence you need to rest the day after to give your body time to adapt. In fact, the muscle fibres will increase in size and hence make your muscles stronger (hypertrophy). You know when you’ve done enough, as your muscles will ache slightly afterwards and even next morning – but not too much! The old adage “No pain, no gain” applies here, but the pain should not be uncomfortable.
Breathing – exhale when forcibly moving a weight, inhale when performing the negative movement or resisting the weight. Some suggest a breathing pattern of 2 seconds for the movement phase (breathing out) and 4 seconds for the resistance phase (breathing in), but do what feels most comfortable.
Gym machines v. dumbbells/body weight etc. – Isolation v. Compound exercises
Isolated exercises require moving one joint and target a specific muscle group. Using gym equipment ensures you do the exercise properly, in the correct plane, and can help correct muscle imbalance. However, they do not translate to running as readily as other forms of strength training.
Compound lifts, on the other hand, move multiple joints and utilise multiple muscle groups at one time, but they carry a slightly higher risk of injury and hence must be done correctly.
Muscle imbalances – can often lead to injury, so how can you tell if you have an imbalance? One way is simply to do an exercise on one side of your body, such as a single leg squat or a set of arm curls on your right arm, and see if you can do as many reps on one side as the other. Or try hopping, first on your right then your left and see if you can do an equal number of hops on each leg before tiring. If not, focus on your weaker side.
How many reps?
If you are new to weight/strength training, start off gradually and learn the proper techniques for each exercise. Always take note of which muscle group you are working on, as several exercises might have different names, but still work on the same group.
If using weights, it is much better to do low reps with high weights than high reps with low weights. Using heavier weights also takes less time, which can’t be a bad thing! In general, the heavier the weight, the fewer the reps. Too many weight training programmes specify the number of reps without taking into account how strong you are to begin with. So do as many reps as it takes before your muscles begin to burn. If using just body weight and you can do, say, 50 squats without feeling anything, add some more weight by putting on a rucksack containing something heavy, or hold some dumbbells in your hands.
To begin with, repetitions should feel moderately challenging; such that when you complete a set you should feel tired, but not close to muscle failure. However, as you get more familiar with the training, some experts say you should exercise until muscle failure, i.e. when you can’t do any more reps without having a rest. But be careful, you don’t want to severely damage anything! As you get stronger over time, you should lift heavier weights or do more reps – but do not progress too quickly, don’t expect to add more weight, or do more reps, every session.
Once a week is sufficient especially when other forms of strength training (such as hills) are included in the weekly schedule, though two sessions may be beneficial at the beginning of a training programme, but remember to rest the following day. You can break up the training by doing several sessions each week, focusing on a different set of muscles each session. You can, for example, do some core work after a steady run, or work on the upper body after the majority of sessions. Don’t work on any muscles that feel sore after a run or are aching, unless specifically directed by a physiotherapist. Give them time to recover and repair any damage. A good strength training session should last between 20 and 30 minutes and it is a good idea to keep a log of what you do (name of exercise and number of reps etc), so you can see if you are progressing.
Plyometrics are “explosive” drills, such as jumping, hopping, bounding etc, and, as such, should only be undertaken once you are relatively strong – they are not to be done at the beginning of a strength training programme. By their very nature they incorporate greater impact on the joints and so NEVER do any plyometrics when injured.
Plyometric muscular action involves the rapid transference between eccentric and concentric action (see below). The result is a very rapid and powerful release of energy, as the muscles stretch under load and then shorten powerfully. The action is akin to stretching out a spring (the eccentric action) and then releasing it (the concentric action). Plyometric training is also known as “elastic”, involving the “stretch-shortening cycle” and the stretch reflex. Running in itself is a plyometric activity and you will be able to improve your stride and your speed even further by performing specific plyometric workouts. “Plyometrics decrease ground contact time, activate your muscles more readily, improve mechanical efficiency and increase muscle stiffness” – (“Faster Road Racing” – Pete Pfitzinger)
For the scientifically minded …
Concentric and eccentric muscle action: Concentric muscular action occurs when a muscle shortens underload, as is the case during the lifting phase of a biceps curl. It is the most common muscular action in sport. An eccentric muscular action occurs when a muscle lengthens under load, as is the case during the lowering phase of a biceps curl or in the quadriceps when downhill running, as these muscles stretch to apply the brakes.
Running relies on a combination of moving (isotonic) concentric and eccentric muscular actions and less obviously on held, isometric actions (these occur when muscles work against each other, creating tensions but no movement). A running example of isometric action is the back and abdominal muscles of your core that work in harmony to stabilise the trunk.
Eccentric contractions create more short- and long-term muscle damage than the concentric variety – for example , delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) that occurs in the quadriceps after downhill running. This results from the thigh muscles having to stretch on foot strike to control the speed of descent (this is eccentric load). Research has shown that one session of plyometrics or downhill running can “protect” the body against further DOMS for up to a month afterwards.
Carrying out such exercises help your muscle fibres to store and return greater amounts of “elastic” energy. (Annotated from “Strength training for runners” – John Shepherd)
Chris Usher – January 2021